N.C. bill aims for transparency in UNC-system president search, but drops public disclosure requirement

NORTH CAROLINA — The search for the University of North Carolina system’s new president has occurred largely behind closed doors, but a bill that cleared the state legislature in a late-night session Tuesday cracks the doors open, at least to system board members.

The legislation began by limiting UNC Board of Governors members to three four-year terms, but an amendment proposed Monday by Rep. Grier Martin, a Democrat, would have required the public disclosure of the names and credentials of at least three presidential candidates, as well as at least one open Board of Governors meeting where finalists were discussed.

However, another amendment introduced by Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Republican, on Tuesday scrapped the public disclosure requirement, instead requiring that the search committee present at least three names to the board in closed session. The current rules only require the search committee to present one name to the board before members vote.

The bill — in part the product of an embattled legislature frustrated with perceived secrecy by the board — received overwhelming bipartisan support. It is now on the governor’s desk.

Martin ultimately agreed with the new amendment, citing concerns that UNC might lose out on top candidates if they felt they had to jeopardize their current jobs by publicizing their candidacy.

“My amendment was a little bit of a blunt instrument, and it was also intended to send a message,” Martin said. “So I think we very wisely pulled back on the blunt instrument, but I think the bipartisan message to our Board of Governors is that we expect them to do better on transparency and that the chair and the board don’t have our complete confidence in how they’ve handled the matter of the president of the university system.”

The presidential search comes after the controversial ousting of system president Tom Ross in January for reasons that remain unclear but have been characterized as politically motivated. Emails obtained by the (Raleigh) News & Observer in a public records request revealed that several prominent conservative figures in the state praised Ross’ firing.

Board of Governors member Marty Kotis said many members have pushed for greater transparency but that some shared Dollar’s concerns that an entirely open process would deter highly qualified candidates.

“There was a concern that the full board would only be given one name for consideration and a short amount of time to review it, and many of us thought that was unacceptable,” Kotis said. “I wasn’t necessarily personally opposed to (the open meeting requirement) myself, I always err on the side of transparency. But I think some people felt, not that they wanted to hide anything, but they might not get the same quality candidates if that was exposed.”

Faculty members at UNC-system schools have asked to interact with the presidential candidates. When a reporter from the News & Observer asked the board chairman John Fennebresque where he saw that going, he replied, “nowhere.”

Kotis said he would have liked to see faculty members involved in the final screening process, but he ultimately was satisfied with the bill’s increased transparency.

“I think it’s important to get differing viewpoints to ensure the candidate has the greatest chance of success,” he said. “I believe we did accomplish the goal of greater transparency among the full board.”

UNC-system spokeswoman Joni Worthington said the board had deemed a confidential process necessary to attract the best potential candidates to the top job.

“In all previous presidential searches—as in the one currently under way—the full board adopted a confidential process after concluding it was needed to attract the best candidates possible for the position,” Worthington said in an email Tuesday afternoon. “Whatever process is ultimately followed, the board remains committed to identifying an outstanding leader to serve as the next President of the UNC system.”

The Student Press Law Center maintains a blog, Sack Secrecy, highlighting secretive presidential searches across the country.

Contact SPLC staff writer Tara Jeffries at (202) 974-6317 or by email.